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Themes, and The Movies You Should Watch

Art imitates life, and this year’s Oscar movies demonstrate the truth of that in two important ways.

  1. The first way is that the movies are sad. It is one gut punch after another. Endless war, attempted genocide, sexual abuse, debauchery, and suicide fill the screen time and time again. There are no joyful movies — with the one exception being the animated category, and I’ll get to that later — they are all sad. Top Gun: Maverick is a bit of a feel good movie, but as you watch it, the Goose and Iceman storylines stick in your throat, as does the waning wasted life Maverick has lived. These movies are sad, and they reflect a world that is sad and fatalistic.
  2. Overall, the quality is poor, and that reflects the reality of the pandemic. I’ve noticed the same thing on some television shows I like. All these movies were made during the pandemic, which means the writing, the production, the acting, the staging, everything was done within the confines of remote, Zoom, masks, and ‘essential’ personnel. And it shows. There is a missing zip, pizazz, and crispness that we had right through to last year. Last year’s movies were mostly produced before the pandemic. These movies remind me of the beloved restaurant that is now understaffed and you can only get it to go. It still tastes okay, but the quality isn’t what it was before. Something in the overall experience is lost.

But even with that, there are some gems. But first, let’s talk about themes. That is one of my favorite things to look at. The first theme connecting these films is an anti-military bent. This is not just anti-war, but anti-military. The most evident of these is All Quiet on the Western Front, which shows the hubris and arrogance of a military apparatus that wantonly wastes lives. Then there is Avatar, which openly castigates military operations as evil and exploitive. Top Gun: Maverick glorifies pilots but simultaneously denigrates the military as cold and heartless. The Banshees of Inisherin, likewise, is cast against the backdrop of the civil war that no one seems to understand. Indeed, it is my belief the entire plot of the movie is actually a syllogism for the war itself (and cue The Cranberries ‘Zombie’ in five, four, three, two, one …)

Another noticeable theme in this year’s batch of movies is family. Nothing unusual there, but still interesting to note. Elvis has a heavy family motif, both Elvis as a boy and as a husband and father, Top Gun: Maverick’s key theme is a son who never knew his father who was a pilot before him (another borrowed Star Wars Motif), Tar begs the question — how much does a successful person value family over their narcissism, Avatar’s one strength is Zoe Saldana’s performance as a wife and mother fighting for her family, and Everything Everywhere is really a family saga. But, The Fabelman’s and Everything Everywhere All At Once are completely all in on the family motif; that is all they are. Women Talking, in a way, is a story about a larger family, a community, that has to decide how to deal with the hurtful parts of being in a family.

One more theme and then I will move on. These movies, more than most years, seem to focus in, as a whole, on critique of systems that are authoritative or controlling. For Elvis it was Colonel Tom Parker, for Avatar it is the military, for All Quiet it is the military apparatus of war, and in Triangle it is capitalism. The two that fascinate me the most is Tar and Women Talking. Tar comes at us with an unsubtle jab at the inherent abuse and control afforded celebrity against the level playing field of social media and the power of accusation and innuendo. It chooses the interesting backdrop of classical music to do so, but it could easily be about college basketball coaches, movie producers, politicians, rock stars, or preachers. Authoritative power is corrupting. For Women Talking it is the system of life that gives men the benefit of the doubt and always forces women to make the hard choices. The men literally choose their own kind over the wellbeing of their wives and daughters, which is an indictment on a culture that screams pro-life but at the same time is okay with mommies and children living in poverty because daddy skipped out. It is yelling at a legal system that turns rape and harassment into a ‘he said she said’ which trivializes injustice. These movies have a lot to say about broken systems of privilege.

Let me now share with you the movies you should see. I realize most of you will not see them all as I have, but you might see some. Here is a list of seven. If you want to work a category throughout, do the animated — that is the most competitive category this year.

  1. Marcel The Shell With Shoes On — See this if you see nothing else. I think this should have been nominated for best picture and is all about family.
  2. Women Talking — see above.
  3. Everything Everywhere All At Once — Speculative Fiction should be rewarded with viewers.
  4. Navalny — Nominated for documentary. Recent events and politics. Reminds you of how thankful we should be for a free press and an adversarial justice system.
  5. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris — probably my favorite overall film. Nominated for costume design.
  6. The Sea Beast — animated category, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
  7. Living — Bill Nighy in this adapted story that started in Russia (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich) and moves through Japan (Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru) and lands here in post-war London. Screenplay by the amazing Kazuo Ishiguro.

Now, a similar list — for the movies you should AVOID AT ALL COST!

  1. Babylon – disgusting and indulgent. Looks like Hell.
  2. Triangle of Sadness — you’ll be sad that you watched it.
  3. All That Breathes — this documentary about kites (birds) in India made me sleepy.
  4. Empire of Light — I do not know why Oscar has such a fixation on Olivia Colman. Colin Firth should be ashamed of himself.
  5. Blonde — it is unwatchable. And weird. And mostly untrue. Did I mention it was unwatchable?

Tomorrow (Or maybe Saturday) I will blog my Oscar picks for the major categories. I know you’re waiting with anticipation.

Read the previous post about this years Oscars by clicking here.

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